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Front Row Seat: How I joined Duluth's pickleball pack

Our columnist's first day playing the country's fastest-growing sport turned out to have more than one surprise in store.

Jay holds pickleball paddle and ball, looking at the paddle contemplatively as players run around a court behind him.
That's not a racket; it's a paddle. Let's play pickleball!
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The heat was on as I lunged for a return, swinging my paddle and trying to make a clean connection with the whizzing plastic ball. Suddenly, I heard a rip and felt an unexpected breeze below the belt. I looked down to see a gaping tear in my shorts, which apparently weren't up to pickleball performance standards.

"I might have some extra shorts in my car," volunteered a player on the opposing team.

"I've got some duct tape," said my teammate.

Putting my Ewok boxer briefs on display to three dozen Duluthians wasn't quite what I expected when I set out to play pickleball for the first time ... but then, it turned out I had a lot to learn about America's fastest-growing sport.

I made my way to the Duluth Indoor Sports Center, or DISC, after receiving a press release about National Pickleball Month. The news release included quotes like, "I recently had the honor of visiting the original pickleball court on Bainbridge Island" (Stu Upson, CEO of the USA Pickleball Association) and it recommended the hashtag #thankyouPICKLEBALL.

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After determining the press release was not, in fact, an April Fools' joke, I wrote a sarcastic tweet about it ... and then, after a few minutes, deleted the tweet. It didn't seem very sporting to knock pickleball before I tried it, despite the game's goofy name and sincerely fervent fan base.

So, on Monday I grabbed that ill-fated pair of casual shorts and drove up Rice Lake Road, where the DISC stands on a picturesque hillside near the Snowflake Nordic Ski Center. After paying $6 to join one of the DISC's daily open-play sessions (the receipt identified my purchase as a "pickleball pass"), I realized that many of the people waiting in the DISC lobby were carrying zipper cases in a telltale broad, flat shape.

"I think I need a racket," I said to the man behind the counter.

"The first thing to know is," he explained patiently as he handed one over, "they're called 'paddles.' No strings."

Once the courts opened up at noon, the players started forming casual foursomes. At 46, I was toward the younger end of the crowd, but like Ronald Reagan debating Walter Mondale, the polite pickleballers decided not to exploit my youth and inexperience. Over the course of the next hour, I'd be granted several mulligans when I failed to land my serves in the 10-by-15-foot target area.

My first volunteer instructor was a woman named Sophie Lohn, who had a bright disposition and a proper tennis outfit — the latter being the exception rather than the rule, with most pickleball players opting for simple shorts and tees. Some accessorized with a bandana headband or a pair of protective goggles.

One silver-haired player took the court wearing jeans, a button-down plaid shirt and a baseball cap — a perfectly practical ensemble given that it seemed like he hardly had to move at all to return every one of my serves. Over on my side, I ran around like a fenced Labrador and still somehow never managed to be exactly where the ball went.

The interior of the Duluth Indoor Sports Center, a large interior white-ceilinged space with several pickleball games taking place.
Players put every pickleball court to use at the Duluth Indoor Sports Center on Monday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

A game of pickleball takes up the space of just over half a tennis court, with the DISC's tennis nets serving as dividers between pickleball games. The pickleball itself has perforations like a Wiffle ball. The rules are broadly similar to table tennis. Before you serve you call out the score, then a "one" or a "two" depending on whether you're taking the first or second turn to serve.

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On Monday I made a point of identifying myself as a reporter, not certain whether all the players would be comfortable in the presence of a journalist. It turned out, though, that no one was the least bit fazed: for the past couple years, pickleball has been getting piles of press. Joe Jurich, who runs the DISC pickleball program, said I was the sixth reporter he'd talked to about the sport.

"Really doesn't take much to learn," Jurich said. "I call this checkers, and tennis chess." He said he personally got started with the sport about four years ago, when the DISC hosted a tournament.

"I didn't know what pickleball was," said Jurich, "so I volunteered to work it. After that tournament, I played 82 days straight."

Many of the players I met commented on the game's oddly addictive quality and its long-lasting appeal, despite the short learning curve. I experienced that firsthand: The games tend to go quickly, with the first team to achieve 11 points taking the win. As soon as one game was over, I found myself scanning the facility looking for the next foursome forming up.

While tennis can be exhausting, playing pickleball felt simply invigorating. That little pop the pickleball makes when you paddle it is just so satisfying, you want to hear it over and over again. Like squash, pickleball rewards precision: You can hit the ball a good distance if you really smack it, but experienced players know to use a light touch and place the ball carefully. With the compact court, consistently keeping the ball in play is no mean feat.

"A lot of them quit tennis because it kind of beat their joints," said Jurich. "Pickleball is not as hard on the body." It's a decent workout, though. According to my Apple Watch, I burned over 500 calories during my hour of pickleballing, with an average heart rate of 97 beats per minute — and that's with the pauses between games factored in.

The play was competitive, but not cutthroat. By the time I crossed the courts in embarrassed retreat, pickleball paddle held strategically in front of my shorts, I'd played a handful of games and met many of the people there. They waved cheerful goodbyes, saying they hoped I'd come back. I said I would, with more durable activewear.

"I love these people," said Jurich. "They're my pickleball family."

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Short cuts

Fidget spinners were just the beginning: Whether you're a kid or an adult, today you have a vast array of colorful options if you're looking for something satisfying to occupy your hands while you focus your attention on an important task (like, say, reading the newspaper). Spinner rings are among the classier fidgets, and next Tuesday, Duluth's Yellow Bird Arts is hosting a workshop for people who want to design their own. See yellowbirdartsduluth.com for information and registration.

Last weekend I flew to Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend a wedding. While I was there, I checked out the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art — a welcome oasis from the heat and the kitsch of Old Town Scottsdale. The museum is justifiably proud of "Knight Rise," a 2001 "Skyspace" by artist James Turrell. Entering the space, you look up and see a patch of sky framed in an oval, inviting you to contemplate the heavens from a new perspective. According to the Scottsdale museum, there are only 14 such Skyspaces open to the public in the United States. Fortunately, we have one of them right here in Minnesota: "Sky Pesher" (2005), at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Colleagues who've seen me walking around the newsroom sipping from a mug my sister designed, featuring photos of me with various Easter baskets, have probably figured out that I'm a pretty serious fan of this weekend's holiday. Unfortunately, there isn't nearly as much Easter music as there is Christmas music, but if you're looking for a vibe that's a little bit more casual than Bach's "Easter Oratorio," you might see if your favorite streaming service has the classic 1966 album "Peter Cottontail: The First Easter Record for Children." The compilation features Gene Autry's rendition of the 1949 title song, as well as other charming oddities like two Beat-inspired Easter stories by — yes, really — Art Carney.

A hand holds a mug in front of flag and "Duluth News Tribune" lettering. On the mug, a photo of a young boy with an Easter basket is visible.
When you love Easter so much, you need a personalized mug to mark the occasion.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Jay Gabler covers arts and entertainment for the Duluth News Tribune. Contact him at 218-279-5536 or  jgabler@duluthnews.com .

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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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